June 22, 2021

Scientists at the University of North Carolina Gillings School of Global Public Health have developed a universal vaccine that protected mice not just against COVID-19, but also other group 2B coronaviruses — and it triggered the immune system to fight off a dangerous COVID variant.

While no one knows which virus may cause the next outbreak, coronaviruses remain a threat after causing the SARS outbreak in 2003 and the global COVID-19 pandemic.

To prevent a future coronavirus pandemic, UNC-Chapel Hill researchers designed the vaccine to provide protection from the current SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus and a group of coronaviruses with known potential to make the jump from animals to humans.

Dr. David Martinez

Dr. David Martinez

Dr. Ralph Baric

Dr. Ralph Baric

The findings were published in Science by lead authors David Martinez, PhD, a postdoctoral researcher at the Gillings School and a Hanna H. Gray Fellow at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and Ralph Baric, PhD, an epidemiologist at the Gillings School and professor of immunology and microbiology at the UNC School of Medicine, whose research has led to new therapies to fight emerging infectious diseases.  

The lead authors worked with a team of scientists from UNC-Chapel Hill, Duke University School of Medicine and the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine.   

Researchers at UNC Gillings are playing a key role in coronavirus vaccine development. After testing the effectiveness of the first generation of COVID-19 vaccines, they pivoted to look at a second-generation vaccine: one that targets sarbecoviruses, Baric said.

Sarbecoviruses, also called “group 2B” within the extensive family of different coronaviruses, are a priority for virologists after two — SARS and COVID-19 — caused devastating disease in the past two decades.

The team’s approach started with mRNA, which is similar to how the currently available Pfizer and Moderna vaccines work. Instead of including the mRNA code for only one virus, however, the researchers welded together mRNA from multiple coronaviruses.

When given to mice, the hybrid vaccine effectively generated neutralizing antibodies against multiple spike proteins — which coronaviruses use to latch onto healthy cells — including one associated with B.1.351, known as the South African variant.

“The vaccine has the potential to prevent outbreaks when used as a new variant is detected,” said Baric, a trailblazer in pandemic preparedness. 

The paper includes data from mice infected with SARS-CoV and related coronaviruses, and the vaccine prevented both infection and lung damage in mice. Additional testing could lead to human clinical trials next year.

“Our findings look bright for the future because they suggest we can design more universal coronavirus vaccines to proactively guard against viruses we know are at risk for emerging in humans,” Martinez said. “With this strategy, perhaps we can prevent a SARS-CoV-3.”

The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease at the National Institutes of Health and the North Carolina Policy Collaboratory, with funding from the North Carolina General Assembly, supported this study.

Contact the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health communications team at sphcomm@unc.edu.

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